Interview with Xiaolu Guo

By Chitra Ramaswamy

'THEY'RE about plastic love in our modern age," explains Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo of her latest collection of short stories, Lovers In The Age Of Indifference.
Guo's book titles tend to be as strange and tantalising as the stories of longing and never belonging they contain, from the Orange Prize nominated A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers to the more barbed UFO In Her Eyes, which Guo will remake as a film in the spring, shooting in south China. But first, back to the notion of plastic love.

"I mean a love that doesn't have true intimacy," she continues. "Love with condoms – it's about protection and separation. Then there is the alienation of the self, even in the environment to which that self belongs. I feel really close to this book. It's like a diary to me. It's a bleak, female look at reality and love. For me, middle-class life is bleak. It's very far away from true desire. The age of indifference is the age of plastic love."

Guo is in Hackney editing a film. "I don't like it but you can't choose where you want to be," she says frankly. "I just went for somewhere I could afford." She has lived in London's East End since 2002 and this is where, in the greasy spoons, galleries and on the streets, she picked up the economical, witty and conversational English in which she now writes. Since Guo left Beijing, where she studied film and returns every year, the European cities of London, Paris, and Berlin have elbowed their way into her prose. Now she writes in both Chinese and English, and has even started making films.

"When I came to London my writing in English became more about the inner self because Western culture is more about the individual," she explains. She spoke no English when she arrived. "It was very frustrating. You're compelled to write in a language you can't use. I write from my life so the English I use is personal and informal, mixed with Chinese meaning. I'm influenced by French writers like Marguerite Duras, beat poets and JD Salinger rather than Dickens and Shakespeare."

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers told the tale of a Chinese girl, Z, who arrives in London with no English and falls for a vegetarian bisexual Brit. The book's prose cleverly mirrors Z's journey towards grasping the language, beginning in a messed-up, mistake-littered English and ending in a personalised urban slang. Guo's first book in English became as much a meditation on language as it was an exploration of her opposing themes of love and alienation. "These themes belong in me, I don't go looking for them," she says. "They possess me."

Guo grew up in a tiny fishing village on an island off the southern coast of China, the daughter of a fisherman and factory worker who secretly dreamt of running away to the bright neon lights of Beijing to become a writer, a filmmaker, an artist. It's no wonder she is possessed by themes of cultural dislocation and she gives the impression she wasn't just alienated as a child either. Being an outsider seems to be her natural and preferred state. She came to the UK to "cut myself off" and didn't make a film during the decade she studied in Beijing because "they weren't my people either". Yet Guo is wary of easy explanations and cagey discussing her upbringing. She is keen to avoid "the cliché of the Third World child who has had it hard" but does admit that growing up with a strong sense of not belonging coloured all her work. "Loneliness," she says. "The concept of home not existing. All of this shapes you."

Lovers In The Age Of Indifference includes stories that have been translated from the Chinese, such as a mountain keeper watching over a temple or the tale of Beijing's slowest elevator, as well as ones written in English. Some are more experimental: a series of text messages between a Japanese woman and a man from New Zealand who meet in London, or e-mails sent by a Chinese woman to her lover back in England that never get a reply. Plastic love is a poor copy of the real thing but the best we can hope for in a chaotic, globalised, self-gratifying world.

"I see the book as three parts of my personal journey," she says. "The first stories, which are translated, have a classic Chinese style and are about peasant life, lost youth, the lonely child looking for meaning that no-one will show them. The second part is set in Europe and the stories are all about sexuality, detached sex and love in the city. The last part is a kind of return, back through my roots where I reinvent ancient Chinese myths and symbols as strange futuristic characters." Straddling East and West is effecting Guo's writing more and more. "I lived in China for 30 years and the voice of the country was very strong," she says. "It affected my mind, my lifestyle, and I couldn't take it. But then it's not important where you are if you're a writer. What is important is understanding that you're always an outsider, wherever you are. It's good to keep moving."


Chitra Ramaswamy
Living Scotsman, 17 January, 2010


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